GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When Paul Konerko joined the White Sox for the 1999 season as a 23-year-old, he was thrown into a clubhouse full of young players who, like him, were still learning how to succeed in the major leagues.
The White Sox had the youngest group of position players in the American League in 1999 (average age: 25.9 years old) and the second youngest pitching staff (26.4 years old). Only two regulars were over the age of 30 -- a 31-year-old Frank Thomas and a 32-year-old Jaime Navarro -- so for the most part, that team's growing pains were a shared experience.
"You feel comfortable because everywhere you look, you see somebody like yourself, a lot of people in the same mold," Konerko said. "That was a fun year. We had guys, they would go out together and have dinner together. It was like a college team in a lot of ways. And that's good."
The White Sox won 75 games in 1999, but exploded for 95 wins and an American League Central title a year later.
The process to get to 2000's "The Kids Can Play" division title began with 1997's "White Flag" trade, which brought in late-game bullpen arms in Bob Howry and Keith Foulke (shortstop Mike Caruso didn't pan out and was replaced by Jose Valentin in 2000). After the 1998 season, promising center fielder Mike Cameron was shipped to Cincinnati for Konerko, with both players going on to long, successful careers. The difference: Cameron bounced around from Cincinnati to Seattle to New York to San Diego to Milwaukee to Boston to Florida.
Cameron's nomadic career wasn't all by choice, of course -- he was traded for Konerko, Ken Griffey Jr. and Xavier Nady in separate moves -- but Konerko is especially proud of playing 16 seasons for the White Sox. And a point Konerko made while chatting with the media Wednesday at Camelback Ranch was how it's not a given that a young clubhouse that gels together will stay together in the same city.
"The trick is going to be as they keep getting better and better, there will be things pulling away at keeping that together," Konerko said. "More money guys are making, guys get married, have kids, all that kind of stuff and they start to spread out. Hopefully the idea is to build that core and those guys have a lot of, they show up each day for each other because it has been built that way. The wins are just the by-product."
By the time the White Sox hoisted the Commissioner's Trophy in 2005, only five players who played for the 2000 White Sox remained: Konerko, Thomas, Joe Crede, Jon Garland and Mark Buehrle.
But in the short term, having that young clubhouse created a culture conducive to guys like Konerko, Magglio Ordonez, Chris Singleton and Carlos Lee developing into key pieces on a playoff team in 2000. Fast-forward to this spring in Arizona, where the White Sox clubhouse at Camelback Ranch is stocked with recently-established major leaguers (like Tim Anderson or Carlos Rodon) or players pushing for a full-time place with the White Sox (like Yoan Moncada or Lucas Giolito).
The best-case outcome for the current White Sox rebuild is that it comes together like it did 17 years ago, and perhaps can sustain itself a little better. And this isn't to diminish the importance of veterans like Todd Frazier -- who are key in fostering the right atmosphere for younger players to grow -- but there is something to the idea of everyone growing by going through a similar situation.
"I think they'll probably be experiencing the same growing pains, so that kind of helps because you have someone else to talk to," manager Rick Renteria said. But in terms of being able to gain information about themselves, learn the play the game together and just (take) the experiences they're going to gain at the major league level as being a plus, regardless of the outcome. I think in the end, we're talking about how they're approaching their game and what kind of plans of attack they have when they're out there playing."